A new book released Tuesday features a series of essays from a number of leading 2016 presidential contenders who all agree that the criminal justice system is flawed and needs to be revised.
It is unsurprising that several top Democrats — including presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton and former President Bill Clinton — criticised the status quo as overly punitive. However, about a half dozen Republican White House contenders also argued the justice system needs to be less stringent in many cases.
Their op-eds were touted in a book published Tuesday by the policy reform group Brennan Center: “Solutions: American Leaders Speak Out on Criminal Justice Reform.”
Business Insider summarized the Republican positions below:
Staunchly conservative Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called for an end to “overcriminalization, harsh mandatory minimum sentences, and the demise of jury trials,” while proposing several specific reforms. Notably, Cruz urged Congress to put more thought into laws and for the elimination redundant statutes that can punish offenders multiple times for the same crime.
Cruz also called for the “current draconian mandatory minimum sentences” to be reevaluated to ensure people are not sentenced to severe prison terms for crimes that don’t deserve them. He further said the plea-bargaining system unfairly pressures the innocent to plead guilty:
The prosecutor is now the proverbial judge, jury, and executioner in the mine-run of cases. Often armed with an extensive menu of crimes, each with their own sentencing ranges, federal prosecutors can wield their discretionary charging power to great effect by threatening the most serious charges that theoretically (if not realistically) can be proved. If the accused succumbs to the threat and pleads guilty, which often happens, the prosecutor agrees to bring lesser or entirely different charges that carry a lower sentencing range.
Like Cruz, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Florida) called for making the criminal code less complex. In his op-ed, Rubio cited an expert who estimated “the average American now unknowingly commits three felonies a day,” which Rubio said “is intolerable in a republic and practically invites selective enforcement”:
There are now thousands of federal crimes; indeed so many that legal experts cannot agree on a specific number. This is despite the fact that the Constitution gives the federal government no general criminal jurisdiction. To compound the problem, Congress has delegated broad enforcement powers to unelected bureaucrats in federal agencies.
Rubio also suggested reforming civil forfeiture, or the process by which the government seizes private property from those suspected of crimes. Above all, however, Rubio stressed that criminal laws need to be made clear to the public.
“Certain Roman Emperors had a practice of posting new criminal offenses so high up on columns in the Forum that subjects could not read them, nor hope to comply with them,” he wrote, adding, “This story is usually told as evidence of the madness and cruelty of those leaders. As Americans, we deserve a criminal justice system that is neither mad, nor cruel, but fair and just — with criminal laws and regulations that are easy to understand and not prone to abuse.”
Sen. Rand Paul (R-Kentucky) is one of the most outspoken Republicans on criminal justice reform and the libertarian-oriented lawmaker has partnered with Democrats to introduce legislation on the issue, such as reducing racial disparities in sentencing for drug crimes.
So it’s no surprise that Paul’s essay for the Brennan Center addressed a wide range of issues, including the militarization of America’s police force, reducing recidivism, and eliminating minimum sentencing, among others:
Our nation’s laws should focus on imprisoning the most dangerous and violent members of our society. Instead, our criminal justice system traps nonviolent offenders — disproportionately African-American men — in a cycle of poverty, unemployment, and incarceration. Our government’s administrative and regulatory laws have become so labyrinthine that not even our federal agencies, let alone our citizens, know exactly how many laws are on the books.
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R), meanwhile, took a very different approach in his op-ed. Unlike his peers, Walker called for “certainty in sentencing” to ensure criminals go to prison for the worst offenses. Walker also touted measures to address drug addiction and mandate drug tests in workplaces:
Our goal is to help open the door for more people to enjoy the freedom and prosperity that comes from having a great job and doing it well. While some, on the other side of the aisle in the Wisconsin Capitol, have said that drug testing makes it harder to get assistance, we say it makes it easier to get a job and helps people live full and meaningful lives. And that job provides many benefits to society as a whole.
New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R) started his essay by declaring, “Our nation’s criminal justice system has failed us in many ways.”
Christie, who has pushed similar policies in his state, said the country’s bail system should be reformed so it prioritises public safety and fairness. And he called for drug treatment programs to replace incarceration when possible.
Christie declared his status as a former US attorney means he could never be accused of being “soft on crime,” and other states can learn from New Jersey’s accomplishments:
As elected officials we are the only ones who can bring change to fix our criminal justice system. The individuals affected by the system cannot bring that change. Neither can prosecutors nor defence attorneys. And in some cases, not even judges can bring that change. These changes are serious and should be made by the people who are elected and therefore accountable to the people. It is our responsibility.
Rick Perry and Mike Huckabee
Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) also touted their state’s drug treatment programs as models for other states to emulate.
Texas, Perry wrote, became “smart on crime” under his tenure:
I am proud that in Texas, criminal justice policy is no longer driven solely by fear, but by a commitment to true justice, and compassion for those shackled by the chains of addiction. My hope is that all states will do likewise.
And Huckabee referenced his own faith as driving his conviction on the issue:
I know about life-and-death, hope and pain, and crime and punishment. However, redemption is critical from both a moral and a pragmatic standpoint. After all, most of those we incarcerate for criminal and drug-related behaviour will eventually rejoin society at some point in the future.
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